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Artist Profiles

Marcus Rojas: Finding the Sound World

By Published: May 19, 2007
When Threadgill called about his band of two tubas, two guitars, saxophone, trombone (later French horn) and drums, Rojas was intrigued by the instrumentation and jumped at the opportunity. "The big thing about any group is finding that sound world, that balance, that place—if you never heard that world before then you have to create a paradigm for it," he says. Very, Very Circus developed into a powerful ensemble capable of surprise, daring and humor. Rojas toured the world with Threadgill and Bowie's Brass Fantasy, learning from these veterans the business of music and leading a band. With Threadgill using two tubas, Rojas could move away from strictly playing bass lines and developed a wider sonic range.

"Basically I think of myself as this sound machine," Rojas says. "The thing about the tuba that's cool is that it's basically a hollow tube, it's just an amplifier." Rojas pushes the boundaries and expectations for the tuba's role in contemporary creative music, capable of playing melodies in the upper registers that sound like trumpet or French horn. He's developed a range of extended techniques, like using the body for percussion and vocalizing through it and often dances with the instrument as if to exhort more sound. The results can mimic beat-boxing, Tuvan throat singing, whispers and growls. Despite his apprehension that these techniques would be taken for a gag, they are now vital for his self-expression.

The otherworldly soundscapes conjured with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and guitarist David Tronzo as Spanish Fly demonstrated that the tuba was no novelty and, like a synthesizer, Rojas could offer a spectrum of possibilities. "Marcus is basically one of the most important musicians in my life," Bernstein says, crediting Rojas for teaching him to move air more efficiently. It's an enduring musical partnership, and Spanish Fly has reunited to perform and is set to release a new CD: their musical homage to Lester Bowie from 2006's Festival of New Trumpet music. The two also recorded together as part of Kamikaze Ground Crew for a spring release and recently played a rare duo at The Stone.

"What art does and music does, it's a transformative experience. And more and more that's what I'm looking for," Rojas says. He's becoming more selective and focusing on a few groups or specific players, including saxophonists Tony Malaby's Tuba Trio and Michael Blake's Hellbent. He's also an integral part of Douglas' Nomad, still performs with London, often explores with multi-reedist Ned Rothenberg and guests with guitarist Matt Munisteri's Musette Explosion.

"He seeks the opportunity to create music in a spontaneous, totally inspired mind-meld type of environment," Blake says. "And he believes in that and to play with him, you have to believe in that." Blake has used Rojas on gigs for a decade and was honored to be included in the rare gig Rojas led at Cornelia Street Café's Low Brass Festival in 2006. Rojas' ideas about musical structure and expression were so successfully translated and matched his expectations that he is seriously considering that elusive recording as a leader.

"Things are changing a little bit for me now; now I want to go a little bit deeper," Rojas says, with faith that things work out. "I don't know why it is, but I think I'm just blessed, really, in the end. I think we all are."

Selected Discography

Dave Douglas, Mountain Passages Green Leaf Music, 2004)

Roberto Juan Rodriguez, El Danzon de Moises Tzadik, 2002)

Spanish Fly, Fly By Night Accurate, 1995)

Thomas Chapin Trio Plus Brass, Insomnia Knitting Factory Works, 1992)

Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus, Spirit of Nuff...Nuff Black Saint, 1990)

Les Misérables Brass Band, Manic Traditions Northeastern, 1988)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Marcus Rojas

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